Daniel Day-Lewis is so selective when it comes to choosing a role that he has only appeared in four films since his decision to take a break from acting in 1997 after making The Boxer. The movies in question have been Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was directed by his wife Rebecca Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and, now, Nine, directed by Rob Marshall, which opens the Dubai International Film Festival tonight. Nine is based on the 1982 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that was, itself, based on Federico Fellini's Eight and a Half, a film about the art of directing.
It is the second of Fellini's movies that have been turned into musicals for the stage and then become musicals for cinema. The first was Nights of Cabiria, which inspired the stage musical Sweet Charity before becoming a Bob Fosse film in 1969. Nine has been in the works for over a decade. At one stage Spike Lee was slated to direct it. Javier Bardem was also originally cast in the role of the director Guido Contini, before dropping out, citing exhaustion and being replaced by Day-Lewis. The big surprise was that Antonio Banderas who starred in the recent Broadway stage revival of Nine was overlooked in favour of Day-Lewis, an actor certainly not known for his musical exploits.
Day-Lewis's ability to morph into any role has become a feature of his remarkable career to the degree that it is now a cliché to talk about the way the method actor throws himself into his characters. There was never really much doubt that the 52-year-old would produce a good performance playing an Italian director. The only question was how good? Born in April, 1957, the actor has been Oscar nominated three times: winning the gold statue for his turns in My Left Foot, the story of the Irish author Christy Brown, and There Will Be Blood.
Given all the acting prizes it is sometimes easy to forget that in 1989 Day-Lewis went through a huge artistic crisis, which forced him to quit the National Theatre production of Hamlet, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, in London. While playing Hamlet, the actor began sobbing uncontrollably in the scene where the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears and refused to go back on stage. Later on the talk show, Parkinson, Day-Lewis said that this was because he had thought he had seen the ghost of his own father. He hasn't returned to the stage since.
The Hamlet incident must have given the actor a perfect insight into what happens when a creative person goes through an artistic crisis, which is what happens to his character in Nine. Contini is suffering from a midlife crisis and is struggling to complete his latest film. Instead of sitting down to work, Contini spends his waking hours trying to juggle the needs of the various women in his life, his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his favourite actress (Nicole Kidman), his trusty costume designer (Judi Dench), a journalist (Kate Hudson), a woman from his youth (Fergie of the Black Eye Peas) and, of course, his mother (Sophia Loren).
Meeting Day-Lewis in a London hotel at the weekend, I am struck by two things: the number of tattoos on his arms, including a rather bizarre handprint on his right tricep, and how determined he is to play down his hard-earned reputation as an actor who will go to any lengths to prepare for a role. Talking about the difficulty of preparing for a musical rather than a dramatic role, he said: "It's no more or less hard than any of my other films. It's misleading to talk about the difficulties and problems involved.
"It was an immensely challenging thing to do for everyone involved. It was also a sheer pleasure to explore the nightmare we all face at a certain times, when our imagination is failing us. But it is nice to explore that in the safety of the story, rather than face the reality of our creative lives." The ability to rise to any challenge is this actor's forte. He suggests that his zest to learn and try out new things is a direct response to his troubled schooling. The son of the Irish-born Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and the actress Jill Balcon, he went to Sevenoaks School in Kent before being moved to Bedales school following his continued unruly behaviour.
He says he learnt little from conventional educational establishments: "I suppose my education started after I left school. Then I really started to enjoy learning about anything I hadn't previously learnt about it. Although, to be honest, I was not completely convinced by Rob Marshall when he said that I'd find the right voice to play Guido. "Fear, though, is wonderful stimulant, and fear and excitement together is a wonderful aphrodisiac. Rob provided us with the time and encouragement we needed and we had the help of a wonderful singing instructor."
At the London press conference for the film, which he attended with Dench, Kidman, Cruz, and Marshall, Day-Lewis went out of his way to state how he felt that all actors prepare hard for roles. His character's origins in Fellini seem more pronounced in the film than in the Broadway play. Day-Lewis studied the director's work to prepare for the part. "I had seen some but not all of his films before," he says. So, I decided to watch all of them. This was a bit before we starting working. Once I'd done this, I put them all in a box and put them aside. I then spoke to Rob as I was nervous about the connection with Eight and a Half and how we would compare to that masterpiece."
Marshall, who previously brought Chicago successfully to the screen, cleverly steers the film away from mimicking either Eight and a Half or the Broadway production of Nine. Day-Lewis adds: "Fellini is such a mighty presence in our lives, so you could only ever set about this in complete denial of what he's already achieved. Even if we're only a second cousin to his movie it's preferable to deny any connection. You'd just be paralysed if you lived in the presence of that man."
Where the actor felt he understood the character most was whenever the topic of his struggles with artistic block came to the fore. "Initially when I came to the role there was a certain distance between myself and the actor and it was the artistic block that was perhaps the area that I felt that I understood him most at the beginning," he says. "I was attracted to the idea of exploring this theme of finding oneself at the beginning of a period of creativity without having the power of your imagination to help you. I thought that would be an interesting area to work on."
Day-Lewis seems to love playing characters that live life on the periphery, people who struggle to attain almost impossible dreams. After appearing mostly on British television and the stage in the early 1980s, he had a breakthrough year in 1986, appearing in My Beautiful Launderette and A Room With a View. The next year he starred as the Czech doctor in the screen adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This was the first role in which he refused to break from character when the camera stopped rolling. By the time he made My Left Foot in 1989, this had become his usual practice and he stayed in his wheelchair for the whole shoot.
The prize for all this extremity was awards recognition. When he reunited with My Left Foot's director Jim Sheridan in 1993 for In The Name of the Father, the actor reportedly spent a lot of time in a prison cell to play one of the Guildford Four. He says of this approach to acting: "I just prefer to not talk about the stuff because whichever way you describe it, it doesn't really help anyone's understanding of the film.
"Because it's such a personal thing - every actor has his own way for getting ready for it - there's no way of really using language to describe something in which language has a very small part. "Most of the work finally takes place in the strange alchemy between the subconscious and the spirit, whatever that is. You can't talk about it. It sounds self-important and ridiculous." Kate Hudson and Penelope Cruz were more forthcoming about Day-Lewis's methods and described how their co-star would come and watch them rehearse when they were preparing for their song and dance numbers.
Day-Lewis, with a glint in his eye, says: "I was just doing my job! Rob understood that without encroaching upon his work that part of my experience was to live the life, as far as I could, as a director. "A director is allowed to go wherever he wants during the day, to watch rehearsals. One of the great pleasures, day by day, was to watch those girls as they worked and worked and worked on these wonderful numbers. It was work. It was a pleasure. That was all I was up to."
Whatever he was doing, it worked. The voice, the dancing and the performance in Nine make it seem as if Day-Lewis has been appearing in musicals, not gritty dramas, all his life. It's also a part that is as feminine as his turn in There Will Be Blood was masculine. Playing such a magnanimous and colourful character in Nine also appears to have an effect on Day-Lewis's comportment. In interviews, it is often said that the actor is intense, yet now he seems relaxed and pretty genial.
But of course some things never change, and as yet the actor has no current plans to appear in another film soon. One always suspects that it would not take much for him to decide to go on another acting sabbatical, so it's worth appreciating him before it's too late.